Wednesday, January 26, 2022

An Early Chidren's Menu


Menus designed exclusively for children first appeared in department stores and railroad dining cars in the 1920s and were more broadly adopted by restaurants after the Second World War. A hand-written menu from a seven-year-old birthday party in February 1885 reveals what a children’s menu might have looked like had they existed in public dining spaces in the late nineteenth century. 

The menu was pasted on the back of an invitation card, showing the event was held at a private residence in Jamaica Plain, a leafy neighborhood of Boston. 

The types of dishes, and the order in which they were served, reflected the food customs and aspirations of the rising middle class. The evening meal was organized under six basic categories—soup, fish, remove, entrée, sweets, and dessert. The format was that of a banquet menu, or table d’hôte menu at a hotel. This type of set menu was universal throughout the country, symbolizing one facet of “civilized” life in America. The headings are highlighted in color, suggesting the dishes were served as a series of courses in accordance with the formal dining rituals of the day. The “soup”—bread and milk—tells us the meal was strictly for the children. The reference to Mellin’s Food indicates that some of the children (most likely siblings) were very young. This “milk modifier” was a soluble powder comprising dry extract of wheat, malted barley and bicarbonate of potassium. The product was advertised with the slogan: “Mellin’s Food for Infants and Invalids: The only perfect substitute for Mother’s Milk.” 

The supper opened with codfish, followed by ham sandwiches that were called the “removes,” by then an antiquated term for a dish taken off the table after it was served. Next came the entrée. Unlike now, the entrée was a refined dish served in small portions to provide the diner with just a taste. Perhaps it is not surprising that scalloped oysters were employed as the entrée at this children’s party, given the magnitude of the oyster craze. The meal concluded with sweets and dessert. The word “dessert,” which originated from the French word
desservir, meaning “to clear the table,” referred to fruit and nuts put out after the dishes were removed. Again, the composition was slightly behind the times. By 1885, fashionable hotels were showing the sweet dishes and dessert course under one combined heading. 

Ephemera provides unwitting evidence of the norms and values of society. What will future food historians make of children’s menus today that typically offer simple, bland foods with little or no nutritional value and that are unlike the dishes on the main menu?

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

Another example of which I say hooray for the "improbable survival" of an old menu!